The Cradle Will Rock, a Depression-era musical about class warfare, seems more timely than ever
By James MacKillop
Even if its thwarted opening had not been such a scandal, Marc Blitzstein’s The Cradle Will Rock would still command attention. Not merely focused on the working classes, Cradle faces up to contemporary problems by championing labor unions at a time when industrial strife was spilling blood in the streets. No American musical had ever done that. Assertively expressionistic, Cradle feels like a stage work Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill might have written, if given the chance, a companion piece to The Threepenny Opera or The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogonny. On stage as the season opener from the Syracuse University Drama Department, it’s consistently explosive, edgy, trenchant, lyrical and witty. All things to hold an audience, even one that had a hard time getting through the door during the Depression.
Ah, we left out contentious and controversial. The Cradle Will Rock might have been slated to open in midtown Manhattan in June 1937, but it’s not what you’d call “Broadway,” that is, a commercial venture. It was a product of a publicfunded arts program from the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration known as the Federal Theater Project, a vehicle for keeping actors and technicians employed when commercial theaters were going bust. Once conservatives realized the FTP was promoting leftish political positions, they slashed funding for the agency and eventually killed it. The first production was locked out of its original theater, so the entire company walked blocks away to put it on without sets, costumes or a pit orchestra.
Most of this story is told, with some poetic license, in director Tim Robbins’ 1999 film Cradle Will Rock. That depicts the intense struggle and towering personalities, like 21-year-old director Orson Welles, but it does not deliver much of what Blitzstein wanted audiences to see and hear.
A change of venues at the Syracuse Stage complex enhances Blitzstein’s vision in this outing. Anticipating that the stripped-down, two-player version of The Turn of the Screw would draw a select audience, and the rare chance to see Cradle would draw theater buffs from hither and yon, the management has put Syracuse Stage’s Screw in the smaller Storch Theater, and moved the SU Drama musical to the 499-seat Archbold. Over the summer, the Archbold has acquired a pit sufficient to seat music director Brian Cimmet and six more players, one with an accordion. With access to more production capacity, director Rodney Hudson could fulfill Blitzstein’s vision more elaborately than the playwright-composer ever realized in his lifetime.
Kara Ramlow’s lighting design drives the tone even before the action begins. We see projections of grainy, black-and white footage from the 1930s, workingclass men in shabby cloth caps projected on a scrim, from whose images the players will emerge. Illumination of the beginning of the action is as harsh as in a police interrogation and often surrounded by darkness. Director Hudson’s intentions could not be clearer: There are no gray areas in the production. The Cradle Will Rock champions advocacy, what some would call agitprop.
We first see Moll (LilyAnn Carlson), a working girl reduced to prostitution, with “I’m checkin’ home now,” one of the tenderest numbers we will hear. She is propositioned by a well-dressed young toff, Junior Mister (Eric Meyers), who offers her 30 cents, saying it’s all he has. When Junior Mister is approached by a cop (Matt Maretz), his wallet is revealed to be overflowing with cash. When the cop also wants to partake of Moll’s favors, she refuses, and he busts her. The episode is a template for the whole: innocent, exploited workers vs. a greedy, dishonest, hypocritical establishment.
Moll, who reappears often in the action, is one of the few characters with a personal name. Most of the others have names that indicate either function or moral standing, sometimes both. Snotty Junior Mister is the son of imperious Mr. Mister (Amos Vanderpoel), who runs everything in Steeltown along with his shrill but sexy wife, Mrs. Mister (Mary Claire King). They are supported by a claque known as the Liberty Committee, with representatives of the press, church, arts and academe.
Expressionism exaggerates each character, but not to comic effect. Editor Daily (Elliot Peterson) wears a Jimmy Olsen fedora with upturned brim, and Reverend Salvation (Nicholas Petrovich) sports a foot-high miter, thanks to Meggan Camp’s costuming. A few names are in-jokes. The sellout musician is named Yasha (Maclain W. Dassatti) after violinist Jascha Heifetz, whom Blitzstein, himself a symphony hall musician, especially despised.
Three intermittent plot lines work against Mr. Mister’s dominance. In one a vagrant pharmacist, Harry Druggist (Ross Baum), tells how his son Stevie (Danny Harris Kornfeld) was killed trying to save an immigrant worker, Gus Polock (Charlo Kirk) and his wife Sadie Polock (Katie LaMark), who sing a love duet before the attack. Harry, who wears a yarmulke, becomes the sole empathetic character, explaining to Moll how the Liberty Committee are greater prostitutes than she and becomes the lead voice in the ironic trio, “Summer Weather.” He also relates episodes preceding the action, including how the Liberty Committee hoodwinked workers to march to their deaths in World War I.
One of Harry’s flashbacks tells of the death of an unseen worker destroyed by a machine and Mr. Mister’s chicanery in covering it up. He demands that his medical stooge, Doctor Specialist (another role for Charlo Kirk), declare the dead man a drunk under pain of expulsion from the Liberty Committee. Doctor Specialist’s fraud is relayed to the worker’s sister Ella Hammer (Kendall Cooper) in an unsettling duet. In response, Ella sings her outrage in “Joe Worker,” knowing that her brother was pushed, one of the most electrifying moments of the entire show.
Finally, there is Larry Foreman (David Siciliano), the labor leader trying to bring closed shop unionization to Steeltown. For his effort he is jailed for “inciting to riot,” and is beaten by police. He reappears toward the end of the action, chained and bloodied like St. Sebastian. His big solo is the title song, “The Cradle Will Rock,” a line foretelling revolution from the children’s lullaby. It is reprised at the end of the action, which also evokes Clifford Odets’ Waiting for Lefty, an anticipation of Cradle, then only two years old.
The Cradle Will Rock is not thought of as a dance musical; there are no chorus girls kicking at the assembly line, for example. Yet choreographer Andrea Leigh-Smith employs rhythmic movement to shape many characters’ exposition, especially shrewish Mrs. Miser and the self-serving malarkey from the Liberty Committee.
SU Drama students who knock themselves out in Cradle (25 roles)
probably found its musical score strange and perhaps off-putting, even
with the parodies of vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley. Blitzstein was more
at home with modernist opera. Not surprisingly, Leonard Bernstein, while
still a Harvard undergraduate, staged Cradle in Cambridge, and echoes
of it appear in his opera Trouble in Tahiti. Even more of Blitzstein
turns up in John Kander and Fred Ebb, especially Chicago. In the past 74
years the score has remained available in recordings while the show
itself has had to wait for rare opportunities like this one.
This production runs through Saturday, Oct. 8. See Times Table for information.